by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Christ, even the Christ, did not presume to take on the office of high priest. No, Christ was appointed by the One who said, / ‘You are my Own, / today I have begotten you;’ / and in another place that One said, / ‘You are a priest forever, / according to / the order of Melchizedek.’” — Hebrews 5:5-6.
When I first arrived in Norwich 22 years ago I met with the Rev. Dr. Judith Hjorth. She was an Associate Conference Minister in the New York Conference.
She was, in fact, the person on Conference staff charged with helping this church through its last search for a pastor. But that is not the reason we met. It is simply a matter of courtesy for a pastor arriving in a Conference to meet with Conference Staff.
Judy informed me about a fascinating statistic. This statistic is, obviously, better than 20 years old, since I’ll quote it, so the data has changed some. But back then, in terms of faith traditions, the largest group in the state were Catholics.
The next largest group were those in non-Christian traditions with people from the Jewish tradition being the largest chunk of that. The list then continued with non Main Line Protestants in third place.
We Main Line Protestants were last. The point Judy was trying to impress on me was, in terms of numbers, churches in the Main Line tradition were way down on the list.
And yes, over the course of twenty plus years there have been some shifts. But not what you think. The groups I mentioned are still in the same positions relative to each other. However, adherents in all the aforementioned traditions have decreased drastically.
So, what changed? Catholics are still the largest group— 31% of the population. But today the second largest group, 27%, are people church sociologist call “nones.” That’s “nones”— n-o-n-e-s— meaning people with no affiliation to any faith tradition. Twenty two years ago that group barely registered on the radar.  (Slight pause.)
As I indicated, I am in my 22nd year as the Pastor and Teacher at this church. Sometimes people ask why my title is Pastor and Teacher. That title is granted by ordination, authorization in the United Church of Christ.
However, I can’t begin to count the number of times people call me “Father” or I am referred to as a priest. Of course, given the large number of Catholic adherents hereabouts, given the Catholic tradition of using the title priest, given the tradition of calling a priest “Father,” I suppose I should not be surprised people refer to me that way.
But, as I just indicated, I am not a priest. I am a pastor. That is in my title.
This raises an interesting question, not a question about faith traditions, but a question about the English language. What does the word “priest” mean? (Slight pause.)
A strict dictionary definition says a “priest” is someone who handles blood. For those of you unfamiliar with Catholicism an important concept in Catholic theology is transubstantiation.
Transubstantiation is a theological claim that in the Sacrament of Communion the elements— bread, wine— while maintaining all outward appearances of bread and wine— taste, smell— actually become the body and blood of Christ.
Hence, Catholic clergy are called priests. Why? A priest handles blood. Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
But Joe (I can hear you ask), don’t Lutherans and Episcopalians call their clergy priests? Why yes, they do. And that is the theological claim called consubstantiation. This says in the sacrament the substance of the bread and wine does not become the body and blood of Christ but coexists with the body and blood of Christ.
If all that does not make your head spin I don’t know what will because it certainly makes my head spin! And yes, there is yet another level here, perhaps the place where most of the rest of us might fall.
In the Sacrament we find the real presence of Christ. I would, in fact, suggest the real presence of Christ is tangible around the Communion table. After all, where two or three are gathered…. I maintain the real presence of Christ is tangible around the Communion table because there we are called to recognize our mutuality, our commonality, our community in the sacrament. (Slight pause.)
This is said in the work known as Hebrews: “Christ, even the Christ, did not presume to take on the office of high priest. No, Christ was appointed by the One who said, / ‘You are my Own, / today I have begotten you;’ / and in another place that One said, / ‘You are a priest forever, / according to / the order of Melchizedek.’” (Slight pause.)
The observant among you will have noticed the sermon title this week is in Latin— Tu Es Sacerdos. The longer Latin saying is this: “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech.” Translated that reads, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”
When a priest is ordained Tu Es Sacerdos is an anthem often sung by a choir. Indeed, my friend and sometimes collaborator Paul Johnson and I wrote an anthem with the title Tu Es Sacerdos for the ordination of an Episcopal priest.
But who is this Melchizedek? (Slight pause.) When the reading from Hebrews was introduced you heard it said the New Testament contains a myriad of references to the Old Testament. There is, hence, a necessity to understand the Old Testament. And we find Melchizedek in Genesis, in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament.
The name Melchizedek means “sovereign of righteousness.” Righteousness means being in right relationship with God. This Melchizedek was the priest of (quote:) “God most high” who brings out bread and wine, blesses Abram and Sari and sends them on their way as they seek the land which God promises. (Slight pause.)
Based on that brief description my bet is you can start making all the connections this text lays out yourself. The story of Abram and Sari, later Abraham and Sarah, initiates the story of the Jewish people. God makes covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
Melchizedek is a priest, someone who handles blood, a reference to the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. Melchizedek also offers Abram and Sari bread and wine.
Jesus shares with the disciples at the table, blesses the bread, shares it, blesses the cup, shares it. Then Jesus dies and is resurrected.
And that’s our Christian claim: Jesus is resurrected. Why? Certainly one aspect of proclaiming the resurrection says Jesus continues the covenant established with Abram and Sari. And our claim, as Christians, says Jesus is the sovereign of righteousness, in perfect relationship with God.
Of course, this Epistle is to the Hebrews, a group who understand these connections. So the author claims Jesus is a priest of God, like Melchizedek, and thereby calls to mind all the covenant connections Christians have with Hebrew Scriptures. And the writer also makes a claim beyond righteousness: Jesus is the only begotten of God.
That, of course, leaves us with a question: Tu Es Sacerdos? If Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek what does that mean? Or perhaps more directly, if the covenant initiated by God with Abraham and Sarah and embodied by Jesus lives, what does it mean for us today? (Slight pause.)
My answer was voiced by Martin Luther. We are a priesthood of believers. And guess from what place that might come? From the Epistle to the Hebrews, two chapters before today’s reading. (Quote:) “Therefore, my holy brothers and sisters, partners in the heavenly call, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our calling.”
That, of course, leaves a final question. What does it meant that we are a priesthood of believers? (Slight pause.)
Well, here’s my read. It means the covenant lives today. It means we are l called to live in right relationship with God and with one another. We are called to be pastors to one another. As pastors we are all called to acts of kindness. Among these acts of kindness are practicing grace, civility, patience, wisdom, the seeking of hope, peace, the spreading love, joy.
As an ordained pastor I hope I do these things on occasion, at least. And yes, in our tradition, we are all pastors. And yes, in our tradition we are all priests.
And our prayer, all of us as pastors and priests, is that God might empower us to act in ways of kindness. By the way, here’s another way to say what priests and pastors need to do: priests and pastors need to practice the difficult discipline called love.
After all, we are descendants of, inheritors of, we are in the order of Melchizedek. Tu Es Sacerdos. You are a priest. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I hope it is understood that this whole book called the Bible (the pastor holds one up) is not really something with parts. It has many, many, many sections. But it is also one singular entity. And what really ties everything together into one entity is the covenant of love God expresses toward us. Or as I have said hundreds of times— God loves us and wants to covenant with us. I hope this does not sound too judgmental, but if the love of God does not jump off every page of this book, you’re reading it wrong.”
BENEDICTION: God has written the law of love within us. We are empowered to live according to that law, through the Redeemer, Jesus. In Christ, we experience God’s presence together. Where Christ leads, let us follow. Where God calls us to service, let us go. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, the love of Jesus, the Christ and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forevermore. Amen.
 See this chart for today’s data: